Cow's Milk in Infancy Not Associated With Diabetes

From the WebMD Archives

Nov. 5, 1999 (Baltimore) -- Infants at risk for the development of diabetes who are fed cow's milk or cow's milk products are no more likely to develop the disease than are infants who are breastfed, according to a study in the November issue of the journal Diabetes.Type 1 diabetes, previously known as insulin-dependent diabetes, is the more severe form of the disease and develops more commonly in children than it does in adults. Several previous studies have suggested a link between cow's milk and the development of the disease.

Australian endocrinologist Jennifer J. Couper and her colleagues designed the study to answer questions about breast feeding and cow's milk use in infants and to look at the development of destructive antibodies directed at the body's own insulin-producing cells. When these antibodies are produced, the insulin-producing cells are gradually destroyed, and diabetes results.

The study found no increased development of the process in children given cow's milk during infancy. The researchers monitored more than 300 infants from birth to 29 months of age. All of them had a first-degree relative -- mother, father, or sibling -- with type 1 diabetes, so they were presumed to have a higher risk of developing type 1 diabetes than were infants in the general population.

Mothers of the infants were asked to keep a diary at home and to fill in a questionnaire related to feeding at 6 month intervals. Blood was also drawn from the infants every 6 months to look for the development of the destructive antibodies. When these two factors were correlated there was no association between the development of antibodies and whether infants were fed cow's milk or cow's milk products.

Based on the results of their study, the researchers question the current policy statement of the American Academy of Pediatrics that supports the idea that human milk feeding has a protective effect against the development of type 1 diabetes in children with a high genetic risk of developing the disease.

The American Academy of Pediatrics also states that breastfeeding ensures the best possible health of the infant and that in addition to protection against diabetes, breastfeeding also has been shown to provide a protective effect against other conditions such as sudden infant death syndrome and Crohn's disease.


Simeon Margolis, MD, a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, commented on the study for WebMD. He says, "I've never given much credence to the idea that cow's milk is the culprit in the development of type 1 diabetes. This study needs to be continued for a much longer time, but its early results seem to indicate that other factors are at work in the development of this disease."

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